Review of Stephen Crane Remembered

SORRENTINO, PAUL, ED. Stephen Crane Remembered. University of Alabama Press, 2006. 400 pp. $57.50.

In 1895, Willa Cather, then a college student, was working for the Nebraska State Journal when she met a thin, shabbily dressed young man who introduced himself as Stephen Crane. At that time Crane was one of her literary heroes, so she cut classes to stay in the State Journal office and “trap him in serious conversation.” Cather was rewarded one evening when Crane let his guard down and described his writing process, in which “the detail of a thing has to filter through my blood” before he could write about it.  When she “suggested to Crane that in ten years he would probably laugh” at his discomfort in writing, he responded, “I can’t wait ten years. I haven’t time” (177). But is Cather’s account true, or did she fictionalize it later to present her own version of Crane as a romantic artist with a tragic premonition of his own early death? Incidents such as these, and the questions they raise, are at the heart of Paul Sorrentino’s excellent Stephen Crane Remembered, a collection of reminiscences by Crane’s contemporaries. Divided geographically and chronologically into seven sections, from Crane’s childhood in Port Jervis through his college years, his time in New York, his travels in the West, Florida, and Cuba, and his final years in England, Stephen Crane Remembered creates a composite portrait of this enigmatic author.

Stephen Crane Remembered presents Cather’s account along with those of sixty-one others who knew Crane, including Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford, Richard Harding Davis, and Hamlin Garland, as well as reminiscences by those known primarily through their relationship to Crane, accounts previously available only in archives or out-of-print publications.  Among these are recollections from his nieces, his classmates, the artists with whom he shared a creatively rich but materially impoverished life in New York, his fellow correspondents in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and some of the many visitors that crowded Brede Place as Crane desperately tried to write enough fiction to support his household there.  As Sorrentino states in his introduction, several of the writers were influenced by Thomas Beer’s Stephen Crane (1924), a fictionalized biography accepted as fact by most Crane biographers  before Sorrentino and Stanley Wertheim exposed Beer’s fabrications in The Correspondence of Stephen Crane (1988).

Although all the selections are presented with few in-text emendations so as not to disrupt the authors’ narratives, Sorrentino provides an informative biographical introduction for each and supplements these with extensive and well-researched footnotes, thus ensuring that neither Beer’s falsehoods nor other misstatements by the authors stand uncorrected. For example, citing Bernice Slote, Sorrentino notes that Cather’s account is incorrect in some details and that Cather echoes later assessments of Crane, suggesting that she had dramatized her encounter with him. Comprising one-sixth of the book, the footnotes are also an unusually rich source of details about Crane’s life, for in them Sorrentino provides not only publication details but other information, such as one fraternity brother’s recollection that the manuscript of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was “saturated with obscenity and profanity” (316 n.32) or another’s story that a lost manuscript by Crane is hidden in the walls of the fraternity house. The notes also resolve conflicts over the composition and publication history of works such as Maggie:  Crane’s niece Helen R. Crane believes that it was written in “two or three nights” at the home of her father, Crane’s brother Wilbur Crane (47); a classmate, Abram Lincoln Travis, thought Crane had written it in boarding school (62); Frank W. Noxon, a fraternity brother, believed that it was written while Crane was at Syracuse in 1891 (73); and two others place its composition in New York in 1892. In assessing these accounts, confirming some and dismissing others, Sorrentino concludes that Crane was “working on his first novel while at Syracuse” (317 n. 32).

The portrait of Crane that emerges from these overlapping slices of biography includes fresh retellings of familiar incidents from Crane’s life. For example, accounts of Crane’s courage under fire during the Spanish-American War appear in two different versions of the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba on July 1, 1898. In Cecil Carnes’s account, Crane, wearing a white raincoat that makes him an excellent target, stands gazing at the Spanish lines despite a direct order from the newly promoted General Leonard Wood to get down and stop exposing himself to fire. James H. Hare, a photographer, forces him to lie down by saying, “What’s the idea, Steve? Did you get a wire from Pulitzer this morning reading: ‘Why the hell don’t you get wounded so we can get some notices, too?” (224). Reporting on the same incident, Richard Harding Davis recalled, “I knew that to Crane, anything that savored of a pose was hateful, so, as I did not want to see him killed, I called, ‘You’re not impressing any one by doing that, Crane.’ As I hoped he would, he instantly dropped to his knees” (347 n. 37). Despite their differences, both accounts emphasize not just Crane’s indifference to danger and his determination to get the story but also his dislike of ostentatious displays of courage. Another memorable image that confirms Crane’s hatred of display is Charles Michelson’s description of  Davis, resplendent in a tailored uniform “striated with service ribbons,” singing “Mandalay” and accompanying himself on the banjo before an admiring crowd as the “tongue-tied” Crane sat in the shadows “in his old campaign clothes” and refused to discuss his work in such a company (219).

Equally interesting are the accounts of influences on Crane’s writing: Sorrentino notes that those who claim that Crane read the French or Russian realists rely largely on Beer’s biography, but Crane’s sense of gratitude toward William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland, who despite their limitations had promoted his career and “blazed the way” (279) for contemporary literature, occurs in at least one authentic reminiscence. A common thread in the reminiscences is that of the author at work on his writing: Crane assuring Hamlin Garland that “little rows” (94) of the poems that would become The Black Riders were complete in his mind before he wrote them down, or shutting himself up in the “red study” (277) at Brede Place each morning to write before greeting his guests, pausing only to let in his beloved dogs, or, as several writers recall, Crane bent over a sheet of paper, spending a long time carefully searching for the right word before slowly writing down the sentences he had formed in his head.

Stephen Crane Remembered is selective rather than comprehensive; reminiscences readily available elsewhere, such as Corwin Knapp Linson’s My Stephen Crane, reviews by William Dean Howells, and Elbert Hubbard’s obituary of Crane, are omitted, as are pieces already included in Wertheim and Sorrentino’s The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane, 1871-1900 (1994) and The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, which Stephen Crane Remembered complements rather than supersedes. The Correspondence presents Crane in his own words, but Stephen Crane Remembered fills in the other side of the story, providing not only fresh and interesting glimpses of Crane as a writer and a human being but a superb biographical context, in the form of the introductions and notes, for assessing and understanding the stories told by Crane’s contemporaries.